Puzzling People: Fictional Characters with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (55+)

There have always been people significantly challenged by the intricacy of neurotypical social interaction and communication. Only in the last few decades have they been described as being on the autistic spectrum. Particularly since these memorable people can add misunderstanding—hence interest—to plots, many writers over the last 200 years have included them in novels and plays.

We’ll use current medical thinking to gain insight into familiar characters created by 19th-century writers including Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, and more modern writers such as Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Barbara Kingsolver and Graeme Simsion. In a lively and interactive way, we’ll aim to increase our understanding of people we meet in both fictional and daily life.

Note: Back by popular demand, from spring 2019.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

This course is available at the following time(s) and location(s):

Campus Session(s) Instructor(s) Cost Seats available  
Vancouver 6 Phyllis Ferguson $120.00 25 Register

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Identify at least three possible characteristics of people with an autistic spectrum disorder
  • Explain how autism is a spectrum disorder, since these characteristics present in a range of different ways
  • Identify one or more fictional characters, in classic novels and plays written prior the 21st century, who present traits currently viewed as indicative of an autistic spectrum disorder

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Introduction to current knowledge about autistic spectrum disorders

There has been tremendous growth, especially in the last twenty-five years, in our understanding of the complexities of being human. However, a wide range of physical and neurological conditions, although only recently formally diagnosed, have always existed, as revealed by paintings, court transcripts, skeletal remains, diaries... and descriptions in novels.

Fiction enhances our ability to understand others so certain novels can help us appreciate the subtle, complex social and communication challenges of those with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) including how these impact both the individual and the people who share life with them.

Suggested reading: Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853) by Herman Melville and The Glass Menagerie (1945) by Tennessee Williams

Week 2: Focused on facts: Savants, scholars and the seriously obsessed

Our amazingly complex civilizations can only function due to the skills and perspectives possessed by a wide variety of minds. Some people with ASD have made enormous contributions particularly in fields such as engineering, mathematics, medical research etc. In fiction, recent examples include detectives and surgeons. However, the intense focus on a ‘special interest’ can be less productive.

Suggested reading: Chapter 4 and the first two pages of Chapter 22 of Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte, Chapters 2 and 3 of Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot, Chapters 1 and 2 of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) by Jules Verne, Losing Nelson (1999) by Barry Unsworth, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (2002) by Mark Haddon

Week 3: Oblivious fathers

In her novel, Family Album (2009), Penelope Lively has a daughter share a childhood image about “our father who art in his study”. Two hundred years earlier, Jane Austen created a father who also retreated to his library regularly and noted “the little attention he has ever seemed to give to what was going forward in his family”.  This limited awareness of growing children can impact their emotional lives but also sometimes expose them to physical risks.

Suggested reading: “A Speech Language Pathologist Journeys to Highbury” by Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer (2007), Animal Dreams (1990) by Barbara Kingsolver, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) by Marina Lewycka

Week 4: Minimally maternal mothers

A mother’s ability to “read” her child is crucial physically and emotionally, especially in infancy but also throughout their lives. Another important parenting skill is having the ‘theory of mind’ to realize that needs and personalities of your child differ from your own. Parents with ASD love their children but sometimes are not able to show that love adequately.

Suggested reading: ‘Sisters Under their Skins’ unpublished article about an aunt and a mother in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1816) [handout provided in class], Passing On (1989) by Penelope Lively, The Minotaur (2005) by Barbara Vine

Week 5: Awkward suitors

One suitor created by Jane Austen believes that a young woman has accepted his offer of marriage which he has made so obliquely that she is not even aware that he has proposed! Some have difficulty initiating conversation whereas others monologue unceasingly about their own interests. Since many novels focus on romance, such characters add interest to their plots.  

Suggested reading: Chapters 7-11 of Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen, Chapters 34-35 of Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte. Excerpts provided from The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton, The Norman Conquests (1975) a trilogy of plays by Alan Ayckbourn

Week 6: Potential Life Partners

It is challenging to fulfill your sincerely meant promise to love and cherish someone if you have limited awareness that their needs and emotions may not match your own. Sometimes sharing a home is stressful for someone who needs significant solitary time to re-energize themselves.

Suggested reading: Chapter 12 “Happily Ever After?” in So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (2007) by Phyllis Ferguson Bottomer, The Rosie Project (2013), The Rosie Effect (2014) and The Rosie Result (2019) by Graeme Simsion

Books, materials and resources

There is required reading for this course.

Students will receive handouts each week with extracts from the novels to be considered. The first week’s handouts will also include information about autism. It is not necessary for students to obtain any of the books listed above.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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